Throughout the early years of the twenty-first century, Internet blogs and news groups displaced the slow, moribund and politically tribal newspapers. As Internet technology became easier to use, TV news incorporated itself into it to survive, thus also sliding out of political control. However, as politicians worked diligently to weld together the main blocks of world nations into a coherent and oppressive whole, and their grip on people’s everyday lives grew steadily tighter, governments increasingly monitored, censored and stifled the Internet. Consequently, the stories appearing on the main news services only infrequently strayed out of approved bounds. The news returned to being either a mouthpiece for the main parties or else one hundred per cent tabloid pap. The twenty-fifth Mars mission, in 2124, of course got plenty of airtime, as the then slightly antiquated Mars Traveller VI sped on past Mars to be cannibalized within the asteroid belt, its fusion engine dismounted and attached to an asteroid consisting almost completely of metals, and that was blasted back to near-Earth orbit. In that time, the nations of the two main political blocks were steadily sacrificing individual power to a massive, corrupt and hugely wasteful centralized government, so what didn’t make it to the main news was that funding for further Mars missions had meanwhile dried up, as the steadily expanding bureaucracy of what developed into the Committee—a totalitarian world government—leached up increasingly scarce world resources.
The gene bank squatted next to the Leuven monorail: a fat cylinder half a kilometre tall sitting just on the fringes of the government sub-city comprising 90 per cent of the Brussels urban sprawl. Because of its supposedly a political purpose, the bank didn’t warrant Inspectorate guards—its security system consisting of old-style palm and retinal scanners. However, if there was a problem here the Inspectorate could get a unit of enforcers on site within minutes and, Alan Saul noted while he swept past crowded pavements in his stolen car, other more frightening security patrolled the area.
The three tall shepherds strode into view from behind the gene bank just as he turned into a slipway leading up to the staff car park. These sinister machines were fashioned of gleaming metal and white plastic. They each stood on four spider legs, their knee joints rising a metre above their inverted teardrop, tick-like bodies. Saul spotted that, while two of them had their crowd-control gear neatly folded in below their smooth bodies, one of them had a man bound up in its adhesive tentacles, his arms and legs hanging slackly. Obviously the robots were on their way back from a food riot, and this one had yet to deliver its captured subversive to the Inspectorate. They moved on out of sight, stepping delicately through crowds cramming an urban pedway over that way.
Saul pulled up at the entrance to the car park, fingers tight on the steering wheel. The woman to whom this crappy old Ford Hydrovane had been allotted—for no such thing as ownership existed in the New World Order—was off on sick leave, dying in an All Health hospital after picking up MRSA6 during contraceptive implantation, so Saul did not expect any problems at this stage, but the sight of those shepherds had burnt a hole in his calm. The cam installed at the entrance read the bar code in the lower corner of the stolen car’s screen before sending the signal to open the razormesh gates. He drove in, shut down the turbine and, picking up his holdall, paused for a moment just to breathe and dispel the tightness in his stomach.
After restoring a modicum of calm, he exited the vehicle and headed at an easy pace towards the entrance, checking his surroundings as he went. The razormesh fences enclosing this place hardly seemed necessary, since only a few people were gathered outside, and they did not seem inclined to break in, instead having encamped on an abandoned building site. There they seemed intent on growing some kind of crop on a patch of ground where carbocrete had been torn up to expose the underlying soil. This was not an uncommon sight, since many zero-asset citizens were forever in search of some way to fill their bellies.
Within the parking area, squat conifers growing from narrow islands of soil between the rows of cars were evidence of one of the Gene Bank organization’s many successes. They were of a species extinct for ten thousand years, then resurrected from DNA extracted from the mummified gut of a ground sloth raised out of the La Brea tar pits. It was a success that would never be repeated under the Committee. Now that one of their numerous focus or assessment groups had ostensibly deemed it a waste of resources, the leaders of Earth had publicly denounced Gene Bank. But that being an announcement primarily for public consumption, Saul felt the real reason had to be something more complicated.
At the entrance to the building he stepped over to the retinal scanner and paused for a moment while its red laser flickered in his right eye. The screen of the palm scanner lit up next, so he placed his right hand up against it and waited for the beep of acceptance. This procedure seemed to take a little too long, and he felt sweat begin to prickle down his spine. Maybe Janus, the comlife he’d remotely loaded into their security system, had not penetrated, or his artificial iris had malfunctioned, or maybe he’d accidentally scraped some of the multi-refractive nanoskin off his palm—the coating that reflected back into the scanner just whatever it sought. Or just maybe an X-ray scanner he did not know about had identified the contents of his holdall. But no, with a click the locks disengaged, the green light came on, and he pushed his way through the revolving doors. Once in the lobby, a waft of air-conditioning cooling the sweat on his face, he realized precisely what must have happened: seldom used layers of security had been reinstated because someone important was coming here, and that had just slowed things a little.
Pausing for a moment to clip on a bar-coded name tag, he studied his surroundings. Numerous potted plants stood along the walls, piped into a water and feed system, while stretching up the side of one of these, an agribot like an iron centipede was busily clipping away dead matter with its forelimbs, to be then fed into its maw and mulched up inside, subsequently fermented, then shitted back into the pots. Having necessarily taken a great interest in the burgeoning population of robots occupying the world, Saul knew that microscopic manipulators extruded from the tips of its second set of limbs would be picking off even the smallest pests, pin-lasers burning off blooms of fungus, microscopic spray heads on its underside targeting whatever remained with very specific fungicides and insecticides. But even technology like this, employed out on usable farmland, had been failing to produce enough food for thirty years.
Doors opened behind him.
Saul turned to watch a woman enter, then pause to wait as her male companion underwent the security procedure and came through to join her. They both looked subdued and, like all but high-end government officials, ragged and worn, thin-faced and with dark shadows under the eyes. They ignored him as they hurried through to the offices located on this floor—reception staff aware they were due a visit likely to shut them down and tip them out onto the streets, which was a fate they just might not survive.
Once they were out of sight, Saul pressed a fingertip to his temple to call up a menu within his iris. It appeared as a small screen apparently floating off to one side ahead of him, and he scrolled down it by sliding his finger lower, selected something with another press of his fingertip and continued searching. Skin nerves at his temple, linked to the processor embedded in the bone lying underneath, acted like a fine-tuned ball control. Finally he found the blueprint of this building, the diagram appearing to him on a large square virtual screen seemingly rising out of the floor just a few paces ahead. After reminding himself of the layout, he shut the thing down and quickly headed for a nearby bank of lifts, which took him down into the basement.
As he stepped out of the lift, an immediate drop in temperature sent a shiver down Saul’s spine. Ahead lay a long corridor lined with doors opening into the mapping rooms, which in turn opened into the main store of deep-frozen cylinders containing the DNA samples waiting to be mapped. To his right a short corridor terminated at the door leading to the combined library and control room. Opening his holdall to take out one particular item, Saul strode over, pushed the door open and entered.
Aiden King sat at a line of consoles, a big display screen above him running graphics charting the progress of the mapping computers, one frame open on something he had obviously been working on—clearly some sort of presentation. Behind him lay the door into a staff toilet, beside which stood a vending machine filled with Food Agency-approved drinks, lowsugar chocolates and plastic-wrapped sandwiches.
Saul glanced up at a security camera set high in the wall, but if Janus hadn’t dealt with that by now it was simply too late. King was taking a break, eating a grey-looking sandwich, his feet up on the console. He abruptly dropped his feet to the floor, tossed his sandwich back on to his plate and sat upright.
“Citizen Avram Coran?” he said, obviously surprised. The Inspectorate Assessor wasn’t due for half an hour, but it was not unknown for government officials to turn up early to start throwing their weight around.
“He’s not here yet,” Saul said mildly, heading over towards the man.
King began to stand, still looking slightly bewildered, then dumbfounded when he saw his own name on the tag Saul wore. Too late. The space between them hazed and crackled with energy. King jerked upright, stiff as a flagpole, miniature lightnings skittering over his lab coat and earthing from his shoes into the floor. Eyes rolling up into his head, he toppled like a falling tree and slammed down on his back with wisps of smoke rising from his clothing, a smell like burnt wiring permeating the air.
Saul slipped the ionic stunner back into his pocket and sat down in King’s chair even as the man shuddered into unconsciousness. Quickly keying in a code gave him access to Janus. The screen blanked for a moment, then opened a display signifying that Janus was ready. He sat back, breathed in through his nostrils, out through his mouth, slow, calming, then coldly studied the graphic of a slowly turning ammonite shell.
“Any problems?” he enquired, picking up King’s sandwich and taking a bite. It tasted relatively good, and actually contained thin slivers of bacon far too salty to have been Food Agency approved, so obviously it hadn’t come from the vending machine behind him.
“Simple systems,” Janus replied flatly. “Easily acquired.”
“So no Inspectorate interference?”
“None—they expect no problems here. Only the relocation order has been sent.”
“Any idea yet where the stuff here is going?”
“The data is presently going to distributed terabyte storage, to be copied and consolidated at multiple locations. I’ve yet to ascertain where it is being sent from there.”
The data consisted of thousands of terabytes of DNA maps, even though compressed and with interconnecting hyperlinks where code repeated in different samples. Some 20 per cent of all the species of Earth had been mapped—mainly the larger fauna and flora. Experts here and at other banks calculated that samples of another 60 per cent of the total awaited, unmapped, in storage, whilst a further 20 per cent remained to be either collected or discovered.
But knowing the destination of that data was a sideshow. Saul had only discovered that it was being rerouted whilst researching Avram Coran, who was his main reason for being here. Coran ranked high in the mainland European Inspectorate Executive, but had never been to Inspectorate HQ London, so wasn’t personally known there. Upon discovering he was coming here, to such a low-security operation, Saul had felt this an opportunity he could not afford to miss. Coran, though disappointingly not the interrogator Saul was most anxious to meet, was perfect nevertheless for his purposes. If it had been him, the man who haunted Saul’s nightmares, that would have made the operation here even more satisfying, but again, a sideshow.
“What about the physical samples?”
“Nothing on Govnet. I’ve tried searching Subnet in the hope that someone involved in the physical transportation has mentioned the relocation, but nothing yet.”
“The likelihood of transvan drivers getting loose at the mouth is remote, don’t you think?” said Saul. “Showing too much curiosity about government orders usually results in a little inducement in a white-tiled cell.”
Saul was very sure that the human mind could not quite process the effect of the pain inducer, which was useful for the Inspectorate because it made sensory reprogramming easier. After some months of such treatment, dissidents were either returned to society as terrified and obedient robots, or became too damaged to function at all. The latter, if they were lucky, ended up paying a visit to a “Safe Departure” clinic, after which they went through the mulchers feeding community composting tanks. The unlucky were sent to trash incinerators and, as Saul was well aware, were often still alive when thrown in.
“The white tiles are a human affectation,” Janus noted. “And the inducers will soon no longer be required.”
Saul stared at that revolving ammonite. Thousands of dissidents had been euthanized after the failed experiments, but now the technology was nearly ready. Soon the Inspectorate would be able to edit, copy and cut-and-paste a human mind like a computer file. Hannah Neumann was the name connected to all this—another individual he was anxious to meet. After cracking a supposedly secure database to find the most likely candidate responsible for having installed the hardware inside Saul’s skull, Janus had found her, and found out how the Inspectorate was using her work. But what got him just now was Janus saying “a human affectation.”
What is an artificial intelligence? Janus, a mass of synaptically formatted software, mimicked a near-copy of a human mind but with sensory inputs adjusted to allow it to exist on Govnet, distributed and hidden. Janus’s memories were only those it had acquired since it initiated two years previously, but the AI was constantly growing, its vocabulary and reactions changing. Saul believed he himself must have created Janus, because what expertise he possessed seemed to lie in the realm of computer systems. He also surmised that Janus was a risky option, but nevertheless had a head start. The Inspectorate were almost certainly putting together comlife just like it, which would eventually track it down. Saul had limited time to find out who he was, to hunt down his interrogator, and then to exact his vengeance on the Committee.
“The Inspectorate Assessor has just arrived,” Janus informed him, opening up a frame on the main screen so as to display this gene bank’s roofport.
Coran had arrived in an aircar—only government departments sent their officials around in these aerofan-driven creations of orbitally manufactured high-tensile bubblemetals and ceramofacture hydrogen engines. The dwindling supply of such high-tech materials made vehicles like this an expensive option. Janus focused up close as the vehicle settled in a cloud of dust and its passengers disembarked. An Inspectorate enforcer, who was both Coran’s driver and bodyguard, accompanied him.
Saul still possessed enough knowledge of world history to know that the Inspectorate had its near equivalents in the past. It had started out as something like the Gestapo combined with the Waffen SS—secret police, interrogators, the enforcers of politically correct thought. In the beginning it had kept to its home territory—the government offices, the prisons and the adjustment complexes—then, like Himmler’s black-uniformed force, its territory had expanded. However, unlike Himmler’s force, it had been allowed time to take over and absorb the police forces, armies, navies and air forces of the world, so that now its purpose included security, law enforcement and police actions up to and including the use of tactical atomics. But for most civilians the Inspectorate would ever be associated with that sudden hammering on the door in the middle of the night, and the subsequent disappearance of relatives and friends.
Clad in the kind of expensive-looking grey suit those in the Inspectorate Executive favoured, Coran of course sported state-of-the-art comware: fones in each ear engaging via optic to temple plugs, palmtop at his hip and doubtless cameras and retinal projectors actually in his eyes. He was short and stocky, and Saul suspected he ran muscle-tone programmes during the night, complemented by the kinds of steroids banned from public consumption. He looked to be about thirty but, since cosmetic surgery and the new anti-ageing drugs were also available to his kind, he might have been older. Studying the man, Saul felt a clench of disappointment in his stomach. Coran certainly wasn’t Saul’s interrogator, but nor was his face that of any of those others who had made guest appearances out of Saul’s subconscious over the last two years—the total span of his remembered life. No matter, Coran was obviously one of the same kind. Such an official would be precisely the sort Saul needed to help him gain access to the cells of the British Inspectorate headquarters over in London.
Saul hopped out of the seat, stooped to hoist King up by his shoulders, removed and donned the man’s lab coat, then dragged him backwards through into the toilet. He lifted King up on the toilet seat, leaning his head against the hygienic-wipe feeder, locked the door from the inside then climbed up out of the booth. He was stepping out, buttoning up the coat, which was fortunately loose enough to give him freedom of movement, just as Janus announced, “Contact from Sharon Thader. I am running an overlay on you of Aiden King’s face.”
Saul quickly dropped into the seat as a frame opened on the screen before him, to give a vid feed from the upper office of Thader, the manager of this place—a swarthy, tired-looking woman with badly applied make-up.
“Aiden,” she began, “Assessor Coran is on his way down to see you, and you are to offer him every assistance.” She now glanced warily to one side. Coran obviously having just departed her office, she now spoke in a desperate rush. “Do what he says or we’re in trouble. Margot Le Blanc’s Assessment Group is reviewing my appeal and we can hope that at worst we’ll just lose some of the data and samples before this is stopped.”
“Let’s hope so,” he replied.
All they had here was hope, vain hope. The French Region Delegate, Margot Le Blanc, one of the five hundred and sixty Committee delegates, was a career politician favoured by Chairman Messina. She would do nothing to jeopardize her position.
Thader gazed at him oddly, before closing down the communication. Obviously he had not given the expected response, but she didn’t continue the exchange. It was always best not to say too much over vidphone.
Reaching down to his holdall, Saul took out various items and secured them about his person. He left the surgical saw inside, however, and kicked the bag underneath the console just as the door began to open.
Preceded by his bodyguard, Avram Coran entered, and Saul turned, assuming a politely helpful expression.
“Citizen Aiden King,” Coran acknowledged, studying him for a short spell before turning to gaze at the big screen. Coran had never met King, as Saul knew, though there was always the danger that the man had studied the staff files before Janus started tampering with them. Coran’s present lack of reaction signified that he had not. “You understand why I am here?”
“To ensure that the data relocation and physical relocation of samples is under way, to make an assessment of resource usage here at this gene bank, then report back to the Committee,” Saul parroted. But, really, it wasn’t entirely clear why a man of Coran’s rank had been sent. It seemed the closing down of Gene Bank entire, of which this place was just one branch, and the relocation of its resources, database and stocks of genetic materials, possessed an importance Saul had yet to divine. Coran was here to start in the basement and work his way up, to shut it all down and individually deliver new orders to the staff. All staff had been instructed to remain at their stations; even Thader had probably been instructed to remain at her desk up in the penthouse offices.
Coran shook his head at Saul’s apparent naivety. “I rather think the Committee has more important things to do with its time, don’t you?”
“Certainly,” Saul agreed. “I meant report back to the Assessment Group. My apologies.”
“So, if you could explain this to me?” Coran gestured to the screen.
Since here was an important man and he was still sitting in his presence, Saul stood up, but he must have moved a little too quickly, because the bodyguard moved to interpose herself between him and her charge.
Even more visibly augmented than Coran, she towered over him with most of what was female about her buried inside muscle and subdermal armour. Pale cropped hair topped a high forehead over reptilian engraft eyes, and the metal struts of cyber assists ran down the backs of her hands. Saul had to wonder what drove someone to thus visibly augment themselves with so ugly a result. What kind of self-esteem did she possess before she had allowed this to be done to her? In what regard did she hold herself now?
She wore the usual pale-blue uniform, visored cap and bulletproof jacket, and around her belt hung the usual array of tools: the cylinder of a telescopic truncheon, an ion taser stun gun, a short machine pistol and a selection of gas grenades. However, one other item on her belt gave him pause. The fifteencentimetre-long, square-sectioned device, with just a simple combined slide and press-button control inset below a small screen shaped like a segment of orange, was a disabler—a nicely portable version of the pain inducer they used in those Inspectorate white-tiled cells, or from trucks to quell riots. If he’d possessed reservations about what he now intended, the sight of that item would have dispelled them. Saul rarely entertained reservations.
“That’s okay, Sheila. Let the citizen show me what they have here.”
As the bodyguard stepped back, Saul turned to the console, incidentally noticing how Coran now moved himself out of his reach. Though, of course, very little about it appeared on the government-controlled news services of Govnet, plenty of gossip had spread on the Subnet during the increasingly few occasions when it managed to function. Attacks on officials like Coran were becoming more frequent, because people were desperate. Since the bloodless annexation of Australia forty years ago there was nowhere left to flee to—or even dream of fleeing to—and, directly after that, things had begun to go downhill rapidly. Especially when Earth’s government, the Committee, removed the right to anonymity from the electronic voting system, and democracy took its final asthmatic breath. But that was just politics and would have been ignored with usual civilian complacency, were it not for the fact that those same civilians were now starving in massive numbers, and also that the Committee had turned killer.
Saul called up the presentation that King had been working on, and expanded it to fill the entire screen. Here were scans of some newspaper articles from back in the nineteenth century. Speaking off the cuff, he said, “The first gene bank, as we know it, was set up in the twentieth century in reaction to the steady extinction of species, though of course seed banks had been around for a lot longer, and for entirely different reasons. But only in the last hundred years have we made a concerted effort to sample every surviving species. Our stated goal here is to compile a complete gene bank of all life on Earth.”
Coran held up a hand. “You may have noticed that I’m not a tourist and therefore not here on a guided tour. I understand you’ve been managing to extract samples from museum exhibits of extinct animals, and that further digs were financed to obtain samples from prehistoric species in the La Brea tar pits?”
“Yes,” Saul nodded. “We were also running wormbots down into the Antarctic and Arctic ice, and then there’s reverse chemical and pattern mapping.”
“Reverse mapping—that would be the method used to try and obtain the genetic code of…dinosaurs?”
“Not just dinosaurs, but any and all prehistoric life forms we can find.”
Coran nodded slowly. “Which strikes me as stepping somewhat outside your remit?”
Saul suppressed a snake of cynical amusement. Here before him stood a man who worked for an organization that had sent hundreds of thousands off for adjustment, approved the experiments in cerebral reprogramming that resulted in many being lobotomized, and which also presided over numerous not so secret executions of various “dissidents.” Yet now he seemed to be seeking a justification for the closure of Gene Bank. But, then, that was how people like Coran operated: justified by his vision of the greater good, anything was permissible, including murder.
It occurred to Saul that maybe he himself wasn’t that much different.
“There are many benefits to be obtained from mapping the genomes of extinct species, and we now have the technology even to reverse extinction,” he noted, going to the heart of it. “Even now a department of World Health Research is growing a lichen that went extinct some twenty thousand years ago, and some of the chemical compounds it produces are used in the newer anti-ageing drugs.”
Coran shrugged. “A visible benefit, perhaps, but what is the benefit of keeping on ice the DNA from creatures like that?” He pointed at the screen.
Saul glanced back, the screen having automatically moved on to some ensuing display.
The last tiger had died in London Zoo forty years ago, but Gene Bank retained DNA samples from every kind of tiger it had managed to jab a needle into over the preceding fifty years, and had then successfully mapped that DNA. Gene Bank possessed digital maps of the essence of tiger and could, using artificial wombs, resurrect the species with all its variations. The tiger had been a great success story for this place, which was doubtless why King had chosen it for his presentation. Saul’s cynical amusement increased, since he already knew what was coming.
“How, precisely,” Coran began, “can you justify the expenditure of millions of Euros just to save such a species? Where, exactly, will such an alpha predator fit into the society we’re building?”
Real nice society, Saul felt. Of course, there were no more wars, just police actions, though sometimes the truncheon used weighed in at about a kilotonne, and the undertakers had to wear hazmat suits. Despite the world population topping eighteen billion, nobody goes hungry, so there certainly aren’t any food riots—just “dissident actions.” There were no more riots, or rather, they ended abruptly when the Inspectorate used its pain inducers in place of water cannons to reduce the crowd to a writhing screaming mess, whilst sending in the shepherds to snatch up the ringleaders in their sticky tentacles. Committee ideology was environmentally sound and rumours about the problems with the North African desalination plants were untrue. There were fish in the Libyan Sea and southern Mediterranean—pictures were available. The Sahara was green now—pictures of that were available too. And only a month ago didn’t Chairman Alessandro Messina himself say that we are more free than ever before?—after community political officers conducted a survey only last year to prove this point. The Press had greater freedom too, now being government-run and unburdened by financial concerns. People don’t disappear, see; they always come back ready to sing the praises of the Committee.
“As the Sol system colonization gets under way, perhaps we’ll one day have room here for tigers,” Saul suggested, though he knew that was about as likely as Singapore rising from the radioactive saltwater swamp it had become fifty years ago.
The Committee’s massive and always expanding bureaucracy was a hungry beast, and its hunger seemed to have grown as urgent in recent years as that of the citizens it governed. Though there always seemed to be good news from space, funding for projects beyond Earth’s orbit was being hacked down to the bone. This was particularly bad news for Antares Base on Mars. The colonists there would not be coming back and, unless they showed great ingenuity, would gradually run out of essentials and all be dead within five years.
Coran allowed himself a superior sneer. “I would like to see the mapping computers now.”
“Sure,” Saul said, his stomach tightening up again now they’d reached the point where the talking would come to an end. “Let me show you the way.” He smiled at the bodyguard, holding his hands out to either side as he moved round her and led the way towards the door.
Stepping out into the corridor, he again called up a schematic of the building, then made it a realtime overlay updated by Janus. The first room on the left gave access straight through to the main store of sample cylinders. An automated system collected these, one at a time, to take them through to the mapping machines in each separate room. Once the contents of a cylinder had been mapped, it was returned to the store, and once all the samples in the store were mapped, in a process that usually took anything up to a year, a refrigerated transvan would pick them up to take them back to a larger store near Paris, then later replenish them from there. Except the Paris store now lay empty, as places like this were being closed down and genetic sample cylinders rerouted, no one knew to where.
“I am emptying one clean-crate of cylinders,” Janus informed him via the bonefone embedded behind his ear, then transmitted another schematic displaying the outline of a human body with augmentations highlighted and labelled. Just as Saul thought, the bodyguard Sheila had some nonstandard stuff in there, but it shouldn’t present a problem.
He led the way into the first room.
“It’s fully automated,” Saul explained, gesturing to the packed machinery, then walking over to the glass booth attached to the mapper. Inside, a brushed-aluminium cylinder lay on its side, half a metre long and ten centimetres in diameter. Protruding from one end of this were layers of segments separated by thinner layers of insulating foam, all positioned along a single rod. Whilst they watched, an arm terminating in a miniature grab lowered itself over one of these segments, which slid round to present a sample. The claw closed and extracted a thin glass tube, swung it to one side and deposited it in a box that hinged out from the mapper itself, before releasing it. The box closed up into the mapper, then revolved out of sight.
“It’s still an expensive process,” Coran noted. “I’ve studied the breakdowns. Mapping one sample costs over eight hundred Euros—equivalent to the community credit for one week for a standard family.”
“Certainly,” Saul agreed, but couldn’t help adding, “Or about the cost per head at an Inspectorate staff dinner.” Without looking round to see Coran’s reaction, he headed towards the door at the end of the room leading into the main store, heaved the handle down and drew it open. Cold air washed out. “This is our main store.”
“I am not entirely sure that I like your attitude,” remarked Coran snippily, as he followed Saul into the icy aisle between the racked crates.
Handlerbots working in here were arrayed along the near wall like steel and plastic herons, either loading or unloading the conveyor belts running to the mapping rooms. One other robot stood at the far end of this store, where it had removed and was steadily unpacking one of the big round-cornered crates taken from the rack along the rear wall, then standing sample cylinders neatly beside it, like skittles. Such rapid unpacking was not normal procedure here, but Saul doubted Coran would notice that. Saul advanced towards this separate crate, and stared at it for a long moment, his hands clenching into fists. Then he turned abruptly. Its familiarity had set his skin crawling, for it looked just like his crate.
“Your likes and dislikes are a matter of complete indifference to me,” he stated.
The bodyguard had moved in ahead of Coran, and over to his right, her attention having strayed to the line of robots. Saul waited until both she and Coran were within a couple of metres of him, then he pointed back towards the door.
“This interests me,” he added.
Just a contrived distraction.
Coran turned to look but, now having eliminated the robots as a source of potential danger, the bodyguard was again completely focused on Saul. The air hazed, crackling, as his stunner fired its full charge. She staggered but didn’t go down, as copper wires running down through her uniform discharged through her boots. Just as Coran began swinging back towards him, Saul stepped in, the edge of his right hand coming round to slam hard into the man’s throat. Coran crashed into the rack beside him, lost his footing and went down, gagging.
Even as Coran went down, his bodyguard recovered, throwing herself forward, telescopic truncheon already in her hand and extended. Turning, Saul dropped the stunner and thrust-kicked her left knee, whereupon she stooped slightly, and took his first twisting karate punch to her solar plexus. This slammed her to a halt, but her subdermal armour and bulletproof top absorbed most of the shock.
A horrible grin appeared on her face. Saul had attacked an Inspectorate Assessor, and herself, so the gloves were off, and she could justify an extreme response. Her grin winked out, however, as his second punch flattened her nose and drove her back further. She whipped her truncheon across, but he pulled his head back just enough for it to miss. He then drove a punch into her upper ribcage, just below her armpit where there was not so much protection, caught her right wrist and pulled her towards him, drove his knee into her groin, an elbow into her face, followed by stamping down on the arch of her foot. She managed to get in a left-handed blow to his stomach, which he took, before smacking his forehead straight into her already broken and bleeding nose. Then he pushed himself away.
It was over, she assumed, knowing that although slower than him, she could withstand this kind of punishment, and eventually get a grip on one of the other weapons strung on her belt. She dropped her truncheon and groped for the disabler, already relishing the prospect of using it, then her eyes grew wide as the cylinder clamps of one of the handlerbots closed around her neck, its two sets of jaws scissoring shut on hydraulics—one set directly below her jaw and the other a couple of centimetres below that—and hoisted her off the floor. She kicked out for a moment, tried to get a grip on the clamps, but they were already sinking deep into her flesh.
Belatedly she tried for her machine pistol. Too late. A gristly crunch ensued as the upper clamp moved ten centimetres to the side, snapping her neck. She hung shivering for a moment, then sagged, lifeless.
Saul turned his attention to Coran, who was now up on his hands and knees, and still choking. The angle of Saul’s blow hadn’t been enough to crush his larynx or to sufficiently bruise his neck that the swelling rendered him either unconscious, or dead.
Saul pressed a hand against the automatic still concealed under his lab coat. The magazine contained ten caseless, ceramic, armour-piercing rounds that would have punched straight through Sheila’s jacket and subdermal armour.
“It would have made a mess,” he replied. “I don’t like mess.”
“The ice-scraping cleanbots would have dealt with it.”
“Even so,” Saul said, realizing that the sight of that crate had affected him more than he wanted to admit, and the memories it evoked were the reason why he’d chosen to use his hands.
Coran managed to turn to gaze up at him with bloodshot eyes. Saul considered smashing the man’s head against the floor, but he didn’t want to damage Coran’s face. He kicked him back down, pressed his foot against his back, grabbed both his arms and pulled upwards, snapping his spine. Next he flipped Coran over, face up, put a hand across his mouth and pinched his nostrils closed. A short while later it was all over.
Panting only a little, his breath gouting in the still air, Saul paused to gaze at the two whose lives he had so quickly extinguished. He tried to feel something, but found nothing to feel, then stooped to hoist up Coran’s corpse and dump it in the now empty crate. Next he took some of his other equipment out of his pocket—a scalpel and the kind of small combined detector and test unit they used in hospitals when dealing with ID implants—and turned to the still suspended woman. After rolling up her sleeve, he soon found the location of the ID implant in her right forearm—a small bullet of hardware about two millimetres thick—and after cutting round a subdermal plate under her skin, levered that up to get to the object underneath.
“Throw her in the crate,” he said out loud, whilst pressing the implant into the test unit. It should not have been damaged and to check that wasn’t the point of the test unit. ID implants shut down if they remained unsupported outside of a human body for long enough, but the test unit would keep this one active.
Moving on rubber treads, the handlerbot gripping the woman trundled over to the box and dropped her in on top of Coran. Saul spent some moments rearranging their limbs until he could slide the lid on and engage the seal. Yes, it was a crate very like this, or perhaps smaller, unless his mind was playing tricks—a crate like this one that he was born in.
Transition to consciousness had been a slow thing. Saul was born in darkness, his mind filled with memories of pain—a chaotic montage of physical damage that had apparently reduced him to little more than bloody and burnt meat on the edge of death—and memories of his interrogator. Saul saw him clearly, clad in a tight pale suit straining at the buttons over a steroid-honed physique, a diamond stud gleaming in his ear, slicked-back black hair, his hatchet face wearing an expression of deep concern that did not reach those glittery blue eyes. Saul expected to hear him speak in his usual convoluted and politically correct manner about “treachery,” “the purpose we serve,” and the “common people,” and he awaited the return of pain, his body’s memory of it as hard as iron under his skin.
Yet the pain now stubbornly refused to make itself felt. Eventually he flexed his fingers and they felt fine, opened his mouth and licked his tongue over dry lips, shifted the rest of his body inside the cramped one-metre cube in which he found himself. Still no pain, though he was aware of movement, a steady rumbling underneath him, and objects impacting or brushing against the outside of his confining space.
“Where the hell am I?” he asked abruptly, the words seemingly rising unbidden.
Immediately, as if someone inside there alongside him spoke straight into his ear, a flat, androgynous voice replied, “You are in a plastic shipping crate moving on the conveyor to Loading Hopper One of the Calais commercial incinerator.”
He knew exactly what that meant and started struggling, pushing at the slick plastic all around him, driving his fists upwards against the lid.
“Get me out of here!” he shrieked.
“It will be necessary to shut down the conveyor system, then put it into reverse.”
“Then fucking shut it down!”
Immediately the rumbling underneath him ceased, things crashing and clanging all about his crate, which was tilting at an angle. Then the conveyor went into reverse, the crate upended and his full weight came down on his shoulders and the back of his neck. After a few minutes of this, something crunched onto the crate, bowing in the sides of it all around him, hauled it up and rapidly shifted it to one side. It dropped suddenly, crashing onto one corner, denting that corner in, then fell down flat.
“Do not be alarmed,” the voice urged him.
Something crunched against the crate again, picked it up and dropped it again. Cracks developed, through which he could see light, then the lid began to split away. The next time the crate hit the floor, he heaved himself against the lid, sprawling out, and even the surrounding dimness seemed too much for his eyes.
The whole place stank of rotting matter and smoke. He jerked round as the wide conveyor, mounded with rubbish, once again jerked into motion, then he abruptly scuttled to one side as, above him, a steel grab on a hinged crane arm swung back to position over the conveyor. Studying his surroundings, he saw he was now squatting in the belly of a sorting machine, over to one side of which rested a mound of scrap metal destined for recycling.
“Are you injured?” the voice asked him.
Nightmarish memories told him that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would have merely fetched a spade and a bin liner, but, studying himself more closely he saw only a few cuts on his hands from broken glass scattered on the floor. Perhaps other damage lay concealed under the paper overall he wore, though all he could feel was some bruising and a tight cramped stiffness. He stood up carefully, his spine and knees clicking and sudden cramp tightening his feet. He gazed down for a long moment at the things enclosing his feet—items made of the same compressed paper as his overall, but thicker on the underside—and could not for the life of him remember what they were called. Then he looked around again, wondering where the strange voice issued from.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked. “And where are you?”
“My inception name is Janus,” the voice replied. “I am speaking to you via a fone implanted in the bone right behind your right ear, but I am myself constantly changing my location over Govnet servers.”
Saul understood at once. “You’re an artificial intelligence.” He paused to consider, before asking a question that only then occurred to him.
“My name is Alan Saul but…” Though now clear in his mind, his name seemed like a label on an empty box.
“You have stated you are Alan Saul,” Janus replied.
“That’s not enough,” Saul declared. “I don’t remember…me.”
A terrifying panic washed over Saul. He knew the world he existed in. He knew how it operated, and knew he possessed large mental resources. But gaping holes lay open in his mind, like naming whatever those things were on his feet, and why he had been interrogated and why his body showed no signs of the torture he had suffered. Or like how he had come to find himself in a crate heading towards an incinerator, or his entire life prior to that point, and, beyond his name, who he really was. Two years later, as he applied a surgical saw to Avram Coran’s neck, he still did not remember most of his previous life. But by then he had learned enough about the Inspectorate to know how he had ended up in that crate, and he also remembered enough to know that his route there had been different from other victims.
His interrogator had used wiring installed in his head to directly edit his mind. Afterwards, as fragmented memory surfaced, it arose with edited-in physical damage that had not actually occurred. So he distinctly remembered hanging in a frame while being skinned alive, the Inspectorate enforcers slicing up lips of skin and then closing hammerhead tongues on the bloody edges to peel them back; or being lowered into boiling water; or just sitting strapped in a chair with a lorry tyre shoved down tight over him, waiting in terror for the moment they would toss the burning match onto his petrol-soaked body.
And, of course, he also remembered the interrogator forever watching, with arms folded, a judgemental but attentive expression on his face as he asked questions Saul did not remember. There had been no intention of returning him to society, just to torture every scrap of information out of him before his final disposal. He didn’t know what that information was, nor did he know how he had acquired the hardware in his head.
But someone did know, he was sure: Hannah Neumann.